In southwestern India, the verdant coastline of Kerala offers an intoxicating cocktail of adventure, culture and relaxation
WhenVasco da Gama, who is believed to be the first European to journey by sea to India, put ashore in 1498,he landed on a broad stretch of silky sand near the city of Calicut in the north of the southwestern state of Kerala.
More than 500 years later Kappad beach is still an oasis of calm where time seems to stand still. There are a few small mosques and fishermen’s huts nestling under the coconut palms. Some marinersare mending their red nets. Most, though, are sitting playing cards in the shade of the trees. Sandpipers and frail-looking herons scour the beach for small crabs to eat.
A swarm of children eagerly follows the few western tourists across the sand, asking in English: “How are you? What’s your name?”
Indians love the Malabar coast. Muslim women, bedecked in long black robes, stand hesitantly next to the water watching their Hindu sisters paddling in the waves. The Hindu girls soak their colourful saris, but a few minutes under Kerala’s warm sunshine will soon dry them out.
The region is tropical – at the same latitude as the Caribbean – and known mainly for its luxury woods as well as pepper and other spices.
The local women normally spend their time drying coconuts and fish caught by their husbands. The most exciting thing that happens here is the arrival of a bus from the city or a rickshaw full of visitors. Tourists in danger of dozing off amid this tranquillity might want to travel to Mananchira Square in Calicut for a bit of shopping.
Afterwards, during the humid, smelly bus ride back to the beach, they will understand why the region’s former British colonial rulers used to build their summer residences far away in the hills.
Those former rulers also enjoyed another wonder for which Kerala is still prized: its extensive network of backwaters in the hinterland. Tourists in northern Kerala often use the waterways to continue their journeys north and south. Others take specialised tours on finely crafted, luxury houseboats. In the Korapuzha backwaters, they can glide serenely past forests of palm trees, banana plantations and families waving from their simple huts.
The bustling city of Cochin, south of Calicut, offers a change of pace. Tourism is well established here. Among the city’s main attractions are the photogenic Chinese fishing nets, which are large shore-operated lift nets, and the colourful gestures and costumes of the Kathakali dancers, who perform an ancient and elaborate Hindu dance-drama.